Thinking Anew – Epiphany where we least expect it
A traditional Epiphany swim in Ukraine. Photograph: Tamara Volodina/iStock
Today is the feast of the Epiphany. It’s part of the great Christmas festival. In some countries, the Epiphany takes precedence over Christmas when it comes to celebrating and exchanging gifts.
Jesus, through the guidance of a star, is made manifest to the Three Wise Men, or Magi, and they in turn “falling to their knees did him homage”. (Matthew 2: 11)
The story of the Magi, their meeting the infant Jesus and how they outwitted King Herod through the help of a dream is one of the age-old stories of Christianity that never loses its sense of wonder.
Today’s feast gives us an opportunity to think about how God is made manifest in the world.
I have known “Jack” for approximately five years.
He is unkempt, has a great long shaggy beard and carries with him all his earthly possessions on his broken-down bicycle. How he rides it with his black sacks on board is both mysterious and an act of genius. Most times both brakes are missing.
“Jack”, who is in his 60s, parks himself, his bicycle and possessions in the porch of a Dublin church most mornings close to 6am and stays there until the end of the 7.30 Mass.
Every morning he is there we have a chat about what’s happening. But on some occasions, we cross swords. The same “Jack” can be rude to people and shout nasty and unprintable obscenities at people.
Over the years, I have visited him in Mountjoy and Clover Hill prisons.
“Jack” can be a nuisance and indeed terrify and frighten people. His loud rasping voice is commensurate with his large stature. He is well over six feet tall and wears size 10 shoes.
More than two years ago he got to know a young woman, who occasionally attends the church. She was involved in an environmental group attached to the parish. She has now completed her studies and is working abroad. Like most of her generation, there is not much about the institutional Catholic Church that inspires her or makes sense to her.
Before Christmas she contacted me inquiring if “Jack” were still around and if so would there be any possibility for her to meet him. I told “Jack” she wanted to see him and “warned” him to be in the church porch on an agreed day. Jack has no address, nor does he email nor have a mobile phone.
It happened and they met. And on that day the three of us had a great chat and laugh. I saw “Jack” smile, talk and laugh in a way that I never saw him laugh before. His face lit up, and this was a metamorphosis. “Jack” knew that this young woman respected him, had time for him and she treated him with dignity.
Every Christmas there is discussion about how we have commercialised the festival. But every year the manic buying and preparation continues. Every year people talk about being exhausted while admitting it’s a great time for children. The usual “stuff” is spoken and written by political and church leaders. Sometimes the words are inspiring, other times they are clichés, trotted out year upon year.
The highlight of this Christmas for me was to see the beaming smile on Jack’s face when he was treated with respect and kindness. If I ever saw God being made manifest in a tangible and real way, it was on that cold winter morning in a porch in a Dublin church.
The liturgy of the Epiphany reminds us of God being made manifest in the world. It seems that liturgy and so much of the life and vocabulary of institutional religion are failing to inspire, call or nudge people to God.
Manifesting Jesus in the world is an exciting project. There is nothing staid or boring about the message of God, and that message turns up where we least expect it. It can be in a church porch, anywhere, an epiphany.